Expectation Can Influence Medication, Study Says

When patients had positive expectations for a migraine medicine, the medication 'worked' better.

Any migraine sufferer can tell you that a migraine is not just a normal headache. It’s a force so strong that it can often keep a person from their daily tasks. Also, given the reoccurring nature of this ailment, it’s easy for sufferers to feel discouraged. But, a recent study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School reveals that an attitude adjustment may improve the pain-relieving affects of migraine medication.

The study, published in Science Translational Medicinesays that when patients had a positive expectation for a medicine, the effectiveness of both the drug and the placebo was greater. This study was the first to attempt how much of a drug’s success is due to the “placebo effect.” Overall, the study determined that both medication and mentality are important for pain relief.

The study examined 66 patients through seven different migraine attacks. First, the researchers had the patients document an attack when they didn’t take any medication. Next, they gave the study participants six envelopes each with a pill to take for their next six migraines. The envelopes were labeled either Maxalt, a drug that researchers said was highly effective, therefore giving the participants a positive expectation for the drug, or placebo, or both.

According to the study:

Of the six treatments, two were made with positive expectations (envelopes labeled “Maxalt”), two with negative expectations (envelopes labeled “placebo”) and two with neutral expectations (envelopes labeled “Maxalt or placebo”). In each of the three situations—positive, negative or neutral—one of the two envelopes contained a Maxalt tablet while the other contained a placebo, no matter what the label actually indicated. The patients then documented their pain experiences in the same manner as they had initially in the no-treatment session.

The researchers reported that the benefits of Maxalt doubled when the patients knew they were taking the drug. When patients believed they were taking Maxalt, but were actually taking the placebo, the patients still reported pain relief. Overall, at least 50 percent of the patients’ pain relief was from the “placebo effect.” According to the study, these results suggest that a positive outlook can nearly double the benefits of a medication.